It's Time to Kill the Debt Limit

The debt ceiling is pointless, redundant, and a threat to our constitutional order.

For now, the debt limit is off the table as a “negotiating” tool. Yes, Ted Cruz used his position to force a cloture vote—throwing the process into momentary chaos—and yes, conservative activists are outraged at John Boehner for acting responsibly. But, for at least the rest of the year, there’s no chance for the debt ceiling shenanigans—Congress has authorized the president to pay the nation’s bills until 2015.

And indeed, if we want to, we could end these confrontations forever with one, simple step—abolishing the debt ceiling.

“But Jamelle,” asks a hypothetical objector, “How would we keep government spending in check?”

Well, ignoring—for now—the idea there’s some optimal level of spending to which we should hold the federal government, there’s an easy answer: If we don’t want to spend, then we shouldn’t. In other words, we should let Congress do its job.

Remember—despite its name—the debt ceiling isn’t a limit on new spending. It’s a limit on the debt we’ll authorize to pay for existing spending. Which doesn’t make any sense. When Congress passes a law, it’s giving a directive to the president: You will implement these programs and do so with the appropriated funds. Implicit in this is the reality that—if the funds aren’t present—the president will borrow them. Otherwise, he can’t follow the directive, placing him on the wrong side of the constitutional order.

Put another way, the debt ceiling is redundant. The mere act of passing a law, if it comes with designated spending, authorizes new borrowing. There’s no need for a separate measure to underline the fact.

I have a few conservative readers, and I’m sure they aren’t happy with this analysis. They may not support the legislative hostage-taking of the Tea Party—threatening the country with default if it doesn’t cut social spending—but they sympathize with the impulse.

I don’t. Not just because it threatens the economic health of the United States, but because it’s a challenge to our constitutional order. If you’re a conservative Republican, and oppose new borrowing, then you don’t vote for new spending. And if you don’t have the votes to block the law, then you should win elections.

The alternative—using the debt limit to stop “spending”—isn’t just nonsensical (the spending has already happened), it’s undemocratic.